Child Well-Being: Definition and Key Concepts

Child Well-Being: Definition and Key Concepts

“Well-being may be best thought of as an umbrella term that encompasses different concepts and approaches – the “best” being dependent on the circumstances in which it is used” – the Good Childhood Report 2016

Child well-being is a measurement of the Best Interest of the Child – the “best” that a child can receive in all the different dimensions of his/her life. A lot of different approaches and frameworks have been developed to delineate and measure the different dimensions of child well-being. Nonetheless, one thing is common across all the different approaches and frameworks, that is, “most experts and ordinary people around the world would agree that it requires meeting various human needs, some of which are essential (e.g. being in good health), as well as the ability to pursue one’s goals, to thrive and feel satisfied with their life.” (OECD 18)Overseas Child Well-Being Assessment Frameworks

The Importance of Measuring Objective Well-Being of Children

The UNICEF for example measure child well-being under six different dimensions of children’s needs: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people’s own subjective sense of well-being (UNICEF 2). The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also measure child well-being under five different dimensions: home & family environment, health & safety, education & school life, child activities & life satisfaction, and child policies. They use objective social indicators such as family income level and literacy rate to show how life is going for children.    

The advantage of collecting data on the objective well-being of children is, it can aid international comparison. The collection of a wide range of children-related data can also enable us to draw comparison between different factors affecting children. This is especially important for policy makers and child-related professionals as they can improve the existing laws, policies and services based on these data and information. The importance of considering child well-being in policy-making

At the moment, Hong Kong does not have a clear system in collecting children-related data. For example, it is not even clear how many refugee children, children with special needs and children of substance abusers there are in Hong Kong. Even where there is data, they are scattered among different government departments and much of them are not open for public use. Many important data are also one-off and are not systematically collected and revealed for public monitoring in a sustainable manner. It is therefore difficult to expect that Hong Kong has any systematic policies in place for these children. Hence, it is crucial for the Commission on Children to take its first step by establishing a Central Data Bank for Children to collect data related to the objective well-being of children.

Taking a Step Further to Understand the Specific Needs of Children in Hong Kong

While it is crucial to collect systematic data on the objective well-being of children, overseas experiences show that this is only the first step. In order to devise policies and services tailored for the children of a specific country, research at a national scale is also needed to evaluate the specific determinants of child well-being for that locality

As the UK Good Childhood Report 2016 reveals, children’s own evaluation of their lives as a whole was not closely associated with objective social indicators about their local area. Instead, it was associated with their subjective views and self-reported experiences of their local area. Family income level also did not have a direct impact on the well-being of children. What did matter was the amount of pocket money the children can receive and whether they have enough resources to maintain good health, develop, play and rest. This shows that children’s direct experiences are more important for their well-being than factors that are more remote from them. This is not to say that objective data and standards are completely irrelevant. The objective social circumstances does have a profound impact on the lives of children. However, if we merely use objective social indicators to understand child well-being, if we do not seek to understand the children’s subjective views and experiences of their own lives, then we would miss a large part of the picture.

The question is, if objective social indicators are not enough in assessing the well-being of children, what should we turn to?

The Most Accurate Method of Understanding How Life is Going For Children is to Ask Them Directly

The answer is the children themselves. The most accurate method of understanding how life is going for children is to ask them directly. Once we identify with the children their needs and the various factors that can satisfy those needs, these data can be used as coordinates in constructing a well-being framework to understand how well children are doing in different areas of well-being, as is the practice in many overseas countries. This framework can render policy-making more evidence-based, transparent, systematic and child friendly. Useful tools and frameworks for asking the opinions of children

Involving children in constructing the well-being framework may sound complicated and tedious, nevertheless, Hong Kong has actually been doing similar research for years. For instance, the Public Governance Programme (PGP) of Lingnan University has developed the Hong Kong Children Happiness Index and has been asking children what makes them happy every year since 2012. The Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong has been studying “the happiness factors” for Hong Kong children since 2016. These research could provide a foundation for developing a more systematic child well-being framework.

In fact, research and theories have been well established in the field as to how we can learn from the children what affects their well-being and how they are doing in these different areas of well-being. And it is precisely in this process that the government and all the child-related professionals can come to understand what our children truly need so as to design policies and services accordingly.

This idea that children should be consulted in matters related to them actually stems from the principle of child participation. As the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)  asserts, children should be treated as social actors. Their ability to provide both a competent commentary on their own experiences and the lives of children in general should be recognized. And they should be given the opportunity to participate in matters related to them in both policy and practice. Hence, from both the research and the moral point of view, children should not be excluded from the study of their own well-being.

Subjective Well-Being and Psychological Well-Being

“Subjective well-being” and “Psychological well-being” are two important frameworks that scholars and policy-makers most commonly use to understand how children see their own well-being. Subjective well-being refers to children’s own evaluation of their lives as a whole. This concept includes both cognitive and affective elements: It requires an investigation of both the life satisfaction of children (cognitive element) and the children’s experiences of positive and negative emotions at a particular point of time (affective element). While Psychological well-being is a six-factor model developed by Carol Ryff. It determines six factors which contribute to children’s sense of meaning, purpose and engagement.

The Six-Factor Model of Psychological Well-Being

  • I like being the way I am (self-acceptance)
  • I am good at managing my daily responsibilities (environmental mastery)
  • People are generally pretty friendly towards me (positive relationships with others)
  • I have enough choice of how I spend my time (autonomy)
  • I feel that I am learning a lot at the moment (personal growth)
  • I feel positive about the future (purpose in life)

Mapping the Policies that have an Effect on Children

These two concepts, and in fact, the whole concept of Child Well-Being is very much related to the “ecological approach to children’s development”. First developed by Bronfenbrenner in the 1970s, it suggests that a) all the experiences children have will contribute to their overall well-being, and; b) what is happening in one part of a child’s life will affect what is going on elsewhere.

“Ecological theory suggests that children are surrounded by layers of successively larger and more complex social groupings which have an influence on them. These include family and extended family, friendship networks, school, neighborhood and work influences, and the family’s place within the community. Still wider is the influence of the culture within which children live. Children across the world will experience childhood in many different ways.” (Aldgate, quoted in  Mc Auley 22)

This approach leads to the implication that policy-making in the area of child well-being would require a mapping on the stakeholders who contribute to the environment in which children grow. And in order for child-related policies to succeed, it would require the cooperation of different disciplines and stakeholders.

A single child abuse case for instance would require the cooperation of social workers, doctors, school, police, lawyers and possibly caregivers. This kind of cooperation is even more crucial if the government is to improve its child protection policy. Hence, a holistic analysis of the well-being of children should logically lead to changes and cooperation across different disciplines and stakeholders related to children.

Not only so, in the process of applying the framework of child well-being, it is crucial to engage the children directly in making changes as well. There has been a growing recognition that children can influence their own well-being through their participation and input into factors that affect their childhood. UNCRC Article 12 even recognizes that children have a right to participate in decisions and events that affect them directly; and they should be seen as competent individuals who can be consulted and involved in decision-making that affects their individual lives. In fact, studies show that a pertinent reason for children’s needs to be unfulfilled is because of broken or unstable relationships with supporting adults and peers. This implies that in order for a child’s situation to be improved in a sustainable way, relationships and networks should be strengthened to support this child with the active involvement and participation of the child. It is hence evident that child participation plays a key role in empowering and improving the well-being of children. Policy implications of overseas child well-being frameworks

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